By Thaddeus Rutkowski

December 2010, Paperback
304 pages



When my siblings and I got home from school, our father took us for a walk. We followed our usual route—along a lane, past a tree-shaded house guarded by a German shepherd, around a stagnant pond, and over a one-lane wooden bridge. After we’d hiked over the first hill, we walked through a field that had been fallow for so long that small trees and bushes were growing in it.

At one point, we came upon a carcass. I saw dark fur, leathery flesh and parts of a skeleton. The animal might have been medium-sized when it was alive. It might have been a dog.

My father picked up the gristly skull and dropped it into a canvas sack hanging from his shoulder. "I’ll put it in formaldehyde," he said. "That should get rid of everything but the bone."

As we walked, a motorcycle droned nearby. Hearing it made me want a power bike. I wanted to ride it off the paved roads, on dirt trails. I didn’t need a big machine—a model with a 90cc engine would be enough. I wanted one more than anything.

At home, my father put the animal skull in a Mason jar filled with yellow liquid. Next to his worktable were some cleaned skulls on a shelf; the scraped bones were pale white and looked as if they’d been polished. Dried squirrel and rabbit skins were nailed to the walls. A couple of birds’ tails with their feathers fanned were also up for display.


I went to visit a boy who had a motorcycle. I found him in his back yard, behind a tool shed. He was throwing a baseball against an oil drum that was lying on its side. He pitched with such force that the ball bounced off the metal shell and came back to him. He caught the ball and hurled it again.

When he saw me, he said, "You pitch to me."

He put on a catcher’s mitt and crouched in front of the oil drum. I threw the ball at him.

"Now that you’re warmed up," he said, "let’s see your fastball."

I threw the ball as hard as I could.

"Okay," he said, "now that you’re loose, let’s see your fastball."

When it was his turn to throw to me, I was afraid to catch the ball. I didn’t put on the mitt. "I wonder if I can ride on your motorcycle," I said.

"Oh," he said, "the engine’s broken. Maybe some other time."


For supper, my mother reheated food that she had prepared the night before. Wearing an apron, she put a large pot on the stove, then stood next to the appliance. The pot contained vegetable soup. Some of the ingredients had come from my father’s garden.

I took a large serving, because the soup was the only course of the meal. I sprinkled black pepper into my bowl.

My mother ate a dish she’d made for herself—cold white rice with pickled bamboo shoots. The shoots had come from a jar filled with red liquid.

"Is that chili oil?" I asked.

"See what it says here?" my mother said. She pointed to the Chinese characters on the jar’s label. "It says ‘Chili oil, made in China.’ Do you want a taste?"

I turned down her offer and went back to my soup.

When I mentioned that I wanted a motorcycle, my father didn’t answer me. Instead, he addressed my mother and siblings. "He’s twelve years old," he said, "and he’s turning into a typical teenager. He doesn’t want to learn anything. He doesn’t want to spend time with the old man. He wants to put a ton of metal between his legs, raise dust and make noise."

Turning to me, he said, "You’ll ride a motorcycle, when you’re ready to pack your saddlebags and leave."


After the meal, my brother and sister and I watched television. One of the shows was a documentary about dirt bikes. In one segment, a dozen riders raced around an oval track filled with sculpted dirt mounds. Each time a front wheel hit a bump, the motorcycle would fly into the air and the rider would stand on the footrests, wrenching the handlebars for balance. Sometimes, the jumping rider would lose his grip and the bike would land on its side. He would right the bike and continue to ride, but he would have to go extra-fast to catch the other riders. The race was called a motocross.

I ignored my homework so I could watch the show. My brother and sister also seemed interested. "I don’t need a driver’s license," I told them, "if I can ride off the road."


Later, I went to see the boy who owned a motorcycle. I asked him if he’d had the engine fixed, and he said that he had. "I’ll give you a lesson," he said.

He had me sit on the back of the banana seat, and he took me to the end of the town’s street. He showed me how the clutch and gears worked, how one hand engaged and disengaged the drive chain while one foot clicked the sprocket lever. The clutch hand also controlled the fuel intake, while the other hand worked the brake.

Solo on the bike, I started slowly. I rolled up a familiar path, toward the top of the nearby hill. First gear felt steady but unexciting. Using my toe and heel, I shifted to second, then third. I twisted the accelerator handle to inject fuel. The engine buzzed like crazy.

I heard something snap, then felt slackness where there used to be forward force. The engine was running, but it was not connected to the rear wheel anymore. The drive chain had come loose.

I turned off the engine and walked the bike back to the neighbor boy’s house.


When my father learned that I’d damaged a neighbor’s motorcycle, he lost patience with me and my siblings. "There will be no more television," he said, "and no more visiting other children."

My mother didn’t disagree. She said, "When you come upon a fierce tiger, you shouldn’t hit him on the nose. This is Eastern conflict resolution. This is how my culture survived for thousands of years."

I had to sit in my father’s workroom and not leave my seat, and my brother and sister had to sit in the living room. The television set was off.

I could see my sister from where I was. She was sitting on the edge of the sofa.

She had a couple of coins in her hand. She was bouncing them on the cushion. They would stick to her palm when she lifted her hand. She would pat the coins down, then bring her hand up, and they would rise slightly before they left her hand and fell back onto the sofa seat.

She noticed me watching and said, "Even though you’re older, you’re a kid, the same as us. We all get treated the same."

I could smell the formaldehyde my father used to pickle the bones he’d found. I could see his visual art around the room. Some of his drawings were of insects: He’d used charcoal to enlarge a cicada larva on a sheet of thick paper.


Early in the morning, my father took me to hunt for small game. We walked to the nearest wild field, where there were plenty of hiding places for animals. Because the day had just started, my father was sober. He seemed to want to talk to me.

"I was walking the dog late last night," he said, "after midnight. When I got to the highway, I saw a car at the side of the road. The driver was standing beside his car. On the ground was a motorcycle and its rider. The rider must have been misjudged the speed of the car as he pulled onto the highway. His shoes were missing, and one leg was bent all the way back. He wasn’t alive."

"I came into the house," my father continued, "and picked up a blanket to put over the body."

Shortly, I flushed up a bird and took a shot. Hit, the bird tumbled like a punctured pillow. I stood over the pile of feathers and felt an adrenalin rush from the killing.

When he heard the shot, my father marched to where I was, looked at the dead bird and said, "It looks bad, but not as bad as that kid last night."


In bed at night, I comforted myself by imagining that I was preparing a long gun for firing. I pushed the bolt handle out to the side, then pulled it back toward me. I heard the scrape of metal on metal as a cartridge entered the chamber. With my thumb, I released the safety.

I looked down the barrel, past the rear and front sights. But I didn’t pull the trigger. There was nothing in front of me. I began to work the bolt again, to push it to the side, then pull it back.